Last night, Cheryl talked about radical kindness – the idea that by simply doing what is right, by expressing your generosity, your care and compassion for others, by truly loving each other – we can bring about radical change that will make our lives and the lives of those with whom we share a community so much more meaningful, beautiful and purposeful. You should have received our Radical Kindness Challenge that will begin next month. I hope you’ll all take part in the challenge. In addition to the challenge, today, I want to ask you to join me and Cheryl as we embark on a very important, radically kind mission.
As an introduction to this mission, I want us to go back in time this Yom Kippur, back to the 19th century, to July 25, 1889. On this day, a group of Jewish children went mushroom picking in the forest that surrounded the city of Vilna – the capital of Lithuania, located in Eastern Europe, north of Poland, west of Russia.
In the late 19th century, Vilna was home to a large, vibrant, well organized, culturally diverse Jewish community. A community filled with synagogues, Jewish schools, Jewish industries and dozens of Jewish charitable organizations that helped care for the impoverished Jews of the city.
But, what the Jewish children discovered as they went mushroom picking in the forest on July 25, 1889, exposed the fact that the Jewish community of Vilna had a secret – a secret that community leaders were fully aware of, but worked very hard to keep hidden. While the secret was exposed by what the children discovered, it still remains very much in the margins of Jewish history.
This has to do, in part, with the fact that many of the Jewish historical documents and records of Vilna and many other Eastern European cities were obliterated by the Holocaust. The oral history of many of the survivors of the region have, fortunately, been documented and serve as an important resource. And some historical materials have been salvaged by scholars and help shed light on life in cities like Vilna.
One such scholar, ChaeRan Freeze, a Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, has done extensive research on documents relating to a dramatic 1890 court case in Vilna. During my sabbatical last year, I was a Clal LEAP Fellow at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Jewish Studies and had the opportunity to study this case with Rebecca Kobrin, Professor of American Jewish History at Columbia University. The case was, in part, a response to what the children discovered as they went mushroom picking in July of 1889.
These children were products of late 19th century Vilna. This being said, their understanding of the Jewish community was probably not that different from our understanding of the Jewish community. They knew that Jews were not supposed to separate themselves from their people. They knew that in order to be a Jew, religious or not, you needed other Jews – to pray with, to celebrate with, to keep each other safe and to just feel like you belong. While the children might not have known all the details, they must’ve known that some Jews in their city struggled to survive. And they very well might have, just like our kids do today, helped support one of the many agencies in Vilna that reached out to Jews in need. What they discovered in the forest, however, would teach them that some Jews who were in need in their city were ignored – not by mistake – but intentionally overlooked and pushed aside.
It was a terrible lesson these children had to learn. One that flew in the face of what they were learning in their Jewish homes and schools. One that flew in the face of what they heard at their synagogues, from their rabbis – especially on Yom Kippur. Back in the late 1800’s these children all likely attended Yom Kippur Services. They heard the same prayers we recited today – including Ashamnu and Al Chet. The Torah we read today is the same Torah that was read in their synagogues. The children were most likely aware of the story of the scapegoat that the High Priest placed his hands on, transferring the sins of all Jews – rich, poor, old, young – onto the goat and sending the animal into the wilderness, with it the wrongdoings of every Jew. If they didn’t recite Ashamnu or Al Chet themselves, the children heard their parents saying the same words we recited today:
Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu
We have acted wrongly. We have been untrue. We have gained unlawfully
They heard the plural language, highlighting the fact that for centuries, our Yom Kippur prayers stress that we repent together, we repent for each other. Even if we didn’t act wrongly, even if we weren’t untrue or didn’t gain unlawfully, someone in our community did and we’re all responsible for each other; we must all care about each other.
But, what these children discovered in the forest undermined these fundamental concepts that are stressed on Yom Kippur. Their discovery exposed the ugly fact that their community really didn’t care about every Jew, that there were some Jews in Vilna who weren’t worthy of repentance, weren’t worthy of the love, kindness, care and support that the rest of the Jewish community deserved. These Jews were pushed into the shadows and, with the exception of some contemporary professors and their students, they’ve remained hidden from their community – from us – until today.
It’s time to bring them out of the shadows. To do that, we need to go to the forest of Vilna on July 5, 1889. It was a Thursday, probably a warm summer day. The children had some free time to engage in a longstanding tradition of the region – hunting for mushrooms. As they gathered mushrooms in their satchels, the children stumbled upon something small wrapped in rags. Whatever it was, it wasn’t moving. One of the children went to pick it up and jumped back in horror. The others soon saw why: it was the corpse of an infant – lying abandoned in the woods.
The children reported their discovery. While shocking to them and to their families, the discovery was not shocking to authorities. As I mentioned, the court case that Professor Freeze has researched was, in part, a response to the corpse the children found. We know from this case that in 1887, two years before the children’s gruesome discovery, police began to investigate the discovery of other infant corpses in the same area. The children’s discovery wasn’t the first – nor was it the last. From January 1, 1889 through May 18, 1890, 25 dead infants were retrieved from the forest of Vilna. Autopsy reports showed that the 25 infants were either murdered or died from neglect. And yes, based upon the fact that the male infants discovered alongside the female infants were all circumcised, it was determined that these 25 infants were Jewish. While some of the documents related to the 1890 court case are sketchy, reputable reports indicate that these 25 infants were just some of the Jewish infants who were killed in Vilna at this time. Jewish infants who had no parents to report them missing. Jewish infants who had no names. Jewish infants who were cast aside by the Jewish people.
There was obviously a problem in Vilna, a problem that was not unique to the city, but one that is well documented because of the 1890 court case: young, unmarried Jewish women were having babies – lots of babies. I don’t need to tell you that in the late 19th century, if a Jewish, single woman got pregnant it was a terrible sin that brought shame not just to the woman, but to her entire family. But it happened and we know from scholarly research that it happened a lot as Eastern European Jews began to assimilate into mainstream culture. Young Jewish women got more freedom and joined the workforce. They weren’t always under the watchful eye of mom and dad. They were with young Jewish men. And, just like young Jewish adults today – they were attracted to each other and one thing led to another. The young men who got these women pregnant were often long gone when the pregnancy was discovered – having moved to another city for a job opportunity or left for America. Sadly, some of the women who found themselves alone and pregnant were victims of rape or incest. No matter how they became pregnant – all of these women were seen as carrying illegitimate children. All of these women were shunned by their families and their communities. All of these women were alone.
Despite the extensive array of social service agencies in Vilna – there was not one official agency that was created to help these single, pregnant women before they gave birth and not one official agency that was created to help them and their babies after they gave birth. While the number of single women getting pregnant in the late 1800’s was increasing – an issue that was by no means unique to the Jews – the Jewish community of Vilna officially chose to turn a blind eye to the problem. As a result, depraved opportunists jumped in to fill the void that the mainstream community refused to fill. And, as we learn from the 1890 court case, in the shadows and margins of the Jewish community of Vilna, a woman by the name of Feiga Noskin began to collect illegitimate, unwanted, unnamed Jewish babies.
Feiga Noskin’s decrepit apartment, not far from where the children discovered that infant’s corpse, became the hub of the underground baby-farming operation of Vilna – an operation that was only whispered about in the quietest and most shameful of tones. Unwed pregnant Jewish women of Vilna and their mortified families heard these quiet and shameful whispers and turned to this baby-farming operation for redemption. So did unwed pregnant Jewish women and their families who lived outside of Vilna. The quiet and shameful whispers led to an influx of desperate, banished women coming to Vilna, seeking a way to save themselves and their unborn children.
Feiga Noskin was old and blind. She needed money to live. We learn from the 1890 court case that she got this money from shady, Jewish baby brokers, brokers who reached out aggressively to unwed, pregnant Jewish women, promising them a safe place to put their baby for a hefty fee that would be collected from wages earned from a job these brokers gave the pregnant women. “Deliver your baby,” the women were told. “We’ll take your baby and care for it. You’ll go to work as a wet nurse – providing ‘kosher’ milk to legitimate Jewish mothers. The money you make, we’ll take some to pay for the care of your infant.”
But, the single, new mothers made nothing – most of their wages going to the brokers – and a bit going to Feiga Noskin who collected their infants from the brokers. Noskin used most of her money to pay for her own expenses. What was left over, she used to buy supplies for the infants. It was never enough.
In 1890, about a year after the children found the dead infant in the forest of Vilna, authorities indicted a group of Jewish women and one man for running Vilna’s baby-farming operation. The details of the operation are laid out in the court case. Forty-nine unwed Jewish women who gave birth to infants testified how they were hired as wet nurses and their salaries were extorted – used to pay for the care of babies they would never again see. Some of these babies were given to legitimate families that wanted a child, too many of them, however, wound up dead, some buried in the local Jewish cemetery, others left in the forest like the one discovered by the children. Feiga Noskin cared for the infants as long as she could. But, with reports suggesting that she received up to 50 Jewish infants a week, eventually, she ran out of money and there was nothing she could do to keep them alive. The infants would die from horrible neglect or worse, were sometimes put down by a poisonous concoction created by Feiga Noskin. In 1892, six Jews were convicted of murdering the Jewish infants of Vilna and sentenced to 6 to 20 years in prison with hard labor.
Today, our Yizkor candle has been lit to honor the memory of all those we’ve lost, including those precious souls that we’ve just pulled from the shadows – the babies who died in Vilna and their mothers who went to their graves with broken hearts.
While all of this is extremely difficult to hear, what is most disturbing to me is that the 1890 court case exposes that the respected, well organized Jewish community of Vilna was in on the baby-farming operation. The leaders of the community actually sent some money to Feiga Noskin. They sent her milk and other supplies. Not enough to keep the babies alive. Just enough to make it possible for the brokers to entice unwed pregnant mothers, just enough to make it look like a legitimate option, just enough to make the illegitimate babies and their mothers who carried them go away and not be a burden or an embarrassment to the Jewish community. The Jewish hospital referred pregnant unwed Jewish mothers to brokers and transferred illegitimate babies born in their facility to Feiga Noskin – again a way to prevent these infants and their mothers from becoming a burden or embarrassment to the community. Further, while we know from the children’s discovery that many infant corpses were abandoned in the forest, we also know that official Jewish burial societies knew about the deaths of these illegitimate infants and arranged for burial plots for them. But, they did nothing to stop these deaths. And we know that rabbis and their synagogues kept the illegitimate births off the official communal records – doing their part to keep the very existence of these babies a secret. Feiga Noskin’s neglect and abuse of these infants sealed the deal. With the help of respected Jewish leaders and institutions, the Vilna baby-farming operations ensured that the Jewish community of Vilna wouldn’t be burdened by unwed mothers and illegitimate babies. The mothers were taken care of – quietly employed and no longer in possession of their infants. And the infants, well, some were adopted by another family while too many were quietly eliminated. Al Chet Shechatanu L’fanecha – what a sin our people committed.
Thankfully, since the children’s horrible discovery in the forest of Vilna back in 1889, the Jewish community has evolved and grown in radically wonderful ways. While the stigma of being unwed and pregnant has lifted significantly, although not completely, within our Jewish world, we’re blessed to have organizations like JAFCO and JFS that support single moms and their babies. JFS, Craig’s Pantry and WECARE work to feed the hungry and help the homeless. There are Jewish organizations out there that are on the front lines of some of the most important issues of our day – issues that affect many Jews and non-Jews who could easily be marginalized – issues like immigration, health care, civil rights and combating hate. We’re not a perfect community. The dark political cloud that hangs over us all these days is hindering the efforts of many of these organizations – but they exist and they’re doing their best to prevent us from marginalizing each other.
This being said, there is a group of Jews who we are pushing into shadows – nowhere near as dramatically as the community of Vilna did to unwed mothers and their babies – but still, we’re pushing them away. These are the people who can’t afford to be here today. These are the people for whom a $200 High Holiday tickets is not an option. These are the people who pinched every penny they had to ensure that they could pay for their child’s bar mitzvah here, but, now that the bar mitzvah is over, they just can’t cut it. These are the people who have little to nothing in the bank, work two jobs and would love to be part of Ramat Shalom, but they can’t afford the $2,000 membership bill. These are the people who are battling a major illness, paying for a special needs child, recovering from a major financial setback – and they just don’t have the ability to pay the dues we and most every other synagogue in the country require.
Thankfully, some of these folks come forward and bravely tell us their stories. They’re heartbreaking. For some, they’re embarrassing. They’re real, raw and painful. But we hear them and we help. For years, I’ve pushed our leadership to ensure that money is never the reason someone is not part of our community. And our leadership has listened – sometimes hesitantly – because, let’s be honest – we have a mortgage, maintenance costs, salaries, insurance and lots of unexpected expenses – like Hurricane Irma damage. Some of you have come forward to pay the dues of individuals and families who can’t afford them – which to me is radically kind of you. But, still, because I’ve pushed to prevent money from being an obstacle, this year alone we’ve already spent in excess of $50,000 to cover the costs of several individuals and families – $50,000 that’s not really budgeted for. $50,000 that needs to be allocated to pay teacher salaries, purchase school supplies, maintain our buildings and sponsor programs. But, what’s the alternative? Push those who have the guts to say “my financial situation doesn’t allow me to be part of Ramat Shalom” into the shadows? To me, that’s not an alternative. The only option is to be radically kind and open our doors to everyone.
I know for a fact that there are many more people out there who would like to be part of our synagogue family but can’t afford to do so and they’re too embarrassed to go through our confidential dues reduction process. Some of these folks have come to me quietly, telling me how sorry they are that they can’t pay the dues or pay for a ticket for the holidays. I’ll offer to help – but pride stands in the way. The fees associated with being here in our loving spiritual home, the fees associated with being part of most synagogues today – fees that give congregations the revenue we need to function – they’re pushing folks with serious financial challenges right into the shadows of contemporary Jewish life. Clearly, and I can’t stress this enough, our fees are not bringing about the same horrors that took place in the forest of Vilna. But, this being said, in our forest we can easily find toddlers whose parents can’t afford a Jewish preschool, Jewish children who are wandering about with no connection to Judaism because religious school fees and synagogue membership dues are just too much. In our forest we’ll also find Jewish adults who desperately need the warmth and love we have to offer, but they’re denied this warmth and love because they can’t pay for it. When you look in our forest, thankfully you won’t discover the horrors that the children of Vilna discovered. But you will discover lots of folks we’ve lost. And their absence has weakened us as a community and their children and grandchildren’s absence weakens us further.
Like most synagogues today, we’re sticking to a business model that relies on dues, tickets and other fees. No synagogue has really come up with an effective alternative to this model – one that really supports the operations of a congregation. Sadly, by continuing to embrace this model, we and most synagogues across the country are continuing to marginalize many Jews who don’t have the financial resources we do for various reasons, tragic reasons, reasons we might not understand, reasons that are none of our business. And by doing so, in a much less horrific way than the Jews of Vilna, we’re not truly living the words we read and speak this Yom Kippur – words that remind us that every single one of us matters and deserves a chance this new year.
We can change things this new year. We can bring Jews who we’ve pushed into the shadows into our community. Not by creating an effective non-dues based business model that synagogues across the country are craving. Sure, we need this model – but a lot work needs to be done before we figure this model out. In the meantime, we can change things right now by making a choice to engage in radical kindness.
In Little Abrahams, a short story written around the turn of the 20th century, we read a fictitious account of the abandoned baby crisis that affected Vilna. At one point in the story, a baby boy is left alone, neglected on the street. “He screams. Shutters of a house open: ‘What’s happening?’” says someone in the house. “A child is crying! A child has been abandoned! Oy, a child.” But, the person in the house, the people on the street, they are all in a rush. They have no time to help. They simply shake their heads as they say, “too bad, too bad. What a shame.” A baby has been abandoned.
We can continue to rush about. We can shake our heads and say “what a shame – people can’t afford to be with us, Jewish children can’t connect to our wonderful Jewish schools.” We can stand in judgment of others’ financial situations and ensure that membership dues are a wall that deny access to anyone who seeks to enter. “Too bad, too bad. What a shame.”
Or we can work together to build a radically kind entryway right into our community.
I want to guarantee that the Jewish babies of Broward County, their older siblings, their parents, grandparents and extended family members can call this incredible community their home if they want to. I’m committed to living the words of Yom Kippur and making certain that we all feel responsible for each other and every Jew – everyone – has the opportunity to feel the sense of belonging that we feel in this sanctuary today.
I feel so strongly about this that I’m asking you on this holiest of days to join Cheryl and me and increase your High Holiday Pledge by at least $150 to help us cover the unbudgeted costs we’ve incurred by opening our doors to those in need. If you’ve never given to the High Holiday Appeal, I’m asking you to please, please consider doing so this year – if this is your first time, consider starting with a pledge of just $15 a month. If everyone of our families did just this, it would cover the costs we’ve spent to date to help those in need connect with us and give us some additional funds to help more families in need. Of course, our community needs as much support as you can offer. And, if you’re joining us as a guest – and you live nearby – please consider becoming more involved with us. Your ticket fee will be applied to any costs associated with joining our synagogue family. You will make us stronger.
I know some of you are thinking: “Oy, they got the Rabbi to ask for money this Yom Kippur.” No one asked me to do this. I asked to do it. Because making certain that our community is truly welcoming and inclusive to anyone who wants in is imperative to me. Because by asking you to help me build this welcoming and inclusive community, sure, on the surface I’m asking for your financial support, but on a deeper level, I’m asking for your radical kindness, your deep compassion, your intense desire to do what is right and good, your true love for this community. I thank you in advance for your incredible generosity that will ensure that our community touches the hearts and souls of all seeking the gift that is our Ramat Shalom.